- After Argentina captured the Falkland Islands in 1982, the British Navy sailed south to retake them.
- But the British navy lacked aircraft carriers for all the missions it had to accomplish to recover the islands.
- So the British turned to impromptu aircraft carriers loaded with helicopters and jets that didn’t need a long bridge.
In 1982, the Royal Navy faced a thorny problem as it prepared to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian forces which seized it in March: not enough aircraft carriers.
These were needed to launch airstrikes on Argentine forces on the islands, to deploy helicopters to patrol for Argentine submarines and ground troops and supplies, and to launch jets to intercept attacks from Argentine ground fighters. which would certainly swarm the British task force.
The Royal Navy could only muster eight Sea Harrier jump jets and 12 Sea King helicopters on the Invincible aircraft carrier – which was about to be sold to Australia! – and 12 other Sea Harriers and 20 Sea Kings on the larger Hermes.
When hostilities broke out in late April, the Harriers quickly proved to be extremely valuable, downing 20 Argentinian attack planes, but also suffered casualties from gunfire and accidents.
However, on April 14, the Royal Navy had requisitioned a 15,000 ton G2 class roll-on-roll-off container ship named Atlantic Conveyor which measured over two football fields as Ships-Taken-Up-From. -Trade (STUFT).
Just as the first American and British escort aircraft carriers during WWII were converted from civilian ships, the Conveyor was to be converted into an impromptu aircraft carrier loaded with helicopters and Harrier jump jets that did not require not a long transport bridge.
The Conveyor received only limited modifications, as it was intended more for delivery than sustained flight. Just as WWII aircraft carriers were often employed to transport land fighters across oceans, the Conveyor’s primary task was to transport Royal Air Force ground Harriers to deliver them to the Hermes and Invincibles.
Regardless, after undergoing nine days of conversion at Devonport, the Atlantic Conveyor set sail on April 25 under the command of her snow-capped captain Ian North. From Ascension Island, she embarked eight Royal Navy Sea Harriers from 809 Squadron and six Royal Air Force Harrier GR.3, usually ground-based, hastily modified to carry air-to-air missiles. Sidewinder to serve in air defense roles.
It also carried six Wessex helicopters and four RAF HC-1 Chinook helicopters recently imported from the United States. Its cargo bay was also stocked with missiles, cluster bombs, mortar shells and aviation fuel, as well as vital generators and aviation fueling systems.
Most of its planes were sealed in plastic “banana envelopes” for protection from the elements, but at least one Harrier was kept on standby for take-off to respond and intercept any approaching Argentine aircraft.
Meanwhile, on May 5, the sister ship Atlantic Causeway was also requisitioned and more extensively modified with a refueling system and hangar structure built on its deck.
The two impromptu aircraft carriers lacked an essential feature: the extensive air search radars of an aircraft carrier and long and short range air defense systems. Their installation on either vessel was apparently considered inappropriate due to their theoretically civilian status, and could have imposed significant delays.
The Atlantic Conveyor arrived near the Falklands on May 19 and delivered its 14 Harriers to reinforce the Hermes and the Invincible, while taking on a Lynx anti-submarine helicopter.
The Conveyor helicopters were ready to join the ground forces on May 26. Its Chinooks, in particular, were seen as a key component for an airborne landing planned by British commandos. Their detached rotor blades had been assembled at sea for the mission.
However, on May 25, two Argentines Super Standard Jets came to shave at low altitude towards the British North West Task Force after being refueled by a KC-130 tanker.
Approaching to within 23 miles, the pilots climbed to a higher altitude and turned on their Agave targeting radars only to retrieve the British fleet. They hastily launched their Exocet anti-ship missiles and then rushed home.
The Ambush picked up the missile launch and hurriedly threw a cloud straw to lure the missile away from its position. These misdirected missiles were programmed to strike at the largest nearby target available after losing contact, and they did – the enormous Conveyor.
Although Captain North tried to maneuver to present the ship’s less vulnerable stern as a target, he could hardly do more for lack of radar warning systems or close defense weapons. At least one – but most likely two – missiles struck its port side C-deck.
The explosion detonated ammunition and fuel supplies, causing an uncontrollable fire, killing at least three crew members. Prince Andrew, who at the time flew a Sea King helicopter from Hermes, recalled seeing “water splash about a quarter of a mile” from flying debris.
Not being a warship, the Conveyor lacked the elaborate architecture and damage control resources to survive this kind of damage. Half an hour later, Captain North reported the abandoned vessel.
A massive three-hour rescue effort involving multiple helicopters and the HMS Alacrity destroyer successfully evacuated 137 civilians and servicemen. One of the intervention Sea King helicopters was piloted by Prince Andrew. Tragically, North and eight others perished at sea before they could be rescued.
The completely burnt out Conveyer remained afloat, and an effort was made to tow the zombified ship. However, on May 28, it finally succumbed to structural damage and sank beneath the waves.
Of the onboard helicopters of the Conveyor, only one Wessex and Chinook named Bravo November remained, having been in the air during the air attack. A planned airborne landing at Mount Kent was canceled and British troops were forced to advance on foot instead.
Bravo November, meanwhile, remained heavily employed in transporting over 2,100 soldiers and prisoners during the campaign, and transporting up to three 105mm howitzers at a time for the island’s troops. The only surviving Chinook would retain its legendary status for future combat actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and remains in service to this day.
The fate of the Conveyor did not prevent its sistership Atlantic Causeway from entering the theater on May 27.
As she transferred her helicopters to shore the next day, she remained in the theater and soon disembarked helicopters carrying wounded from Round Table class landing ships Tristram and Galahad after being hit by Argentine bombs. Although supposed to be a delivery vessel, the Causeway ended up receiving over four thousand helicopter landings.
Causeway finally retired from the theater on June 17 and was reinstated in civilian service, before being scrapped four years later.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and was a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, publishing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.